How to make Seed cake (Elizabeth Raffald’s way)

Seed cake and cup of tea

Devoted to Hannah

I have been devoted to Hannah Glasse.  She’s helped me through all the fundraising events Dine Like A Servant and Lunch with the Curator at the Regency Town House.  I owe her a great deal.  But this week I decided I had enough of Hanna.  I wanted to try out Elizabeth.  That’s Elizabeth Raffald’s the writer of “The Experienced House-Keeper” of 1769.  I wanted to start simply.  What could be more simple that a rich seed cake?  Loved by strapping farm labourers and delicate London ladies alike.

The flavour of Caraway

Seed Cake is even older than the Town House where I cook. The particular recipe I have chosen is flavoured with caraway seed.  The first record of a cake being made of caraway seed was from A.W.’s Book of Cookrye (1591) and it is mentioned in The English Huswife by Gervase Markham, 1615. Although these sources are not medieval, this type of sweet, almost bread-like cake was common during the Middle Ages. There are recipes for both “cheap seed-cake” and “a rich seed-cake, called the nun’s cake. Caraway seeds were a popular flavouring. I have discovered them in many cake or biscuit recipes. Caraway seeds also appear in other items, including soap, a treatment for “hysterics,” and as a bait for rat traps!  Seed cake has been very popular for hundreds of years. It was traditionally made for social gatherings, agricultural harvests and feast days.  A seed cake can truly be said to be a cake of the people.

The Old Recipe

To make a rich Seed Cake (from Elizabeth Raffald 1769)

“Take a Pound of Flour, well dried, a Pound of Butter, a Pound of Loaf Sugar beat and sifted, eight Eggs, two Ounces of Carriway Seeds, one Nutmeg grated, and its Weight of Cinnamon; first beat your Butter into a Cream, then put in your Sugar, beat the Whites of your Eggs half an Hour, mix them with your Flour, put it into the Whites, beat in your Flour, Spices and Seeds, a little before it goes to the Oven, put it in the Hoop and bake it two Hours in a quick Oven, and let it stand two Hours – it will take two Hours beating.”

It’s not easy cooking in a kitchen with a large hole in it.  The Regency drain had blocked. My kitchen sink was no longer operational.  This meant lots of going up and down a Regency servants’ staircase with buckets, it felt very authentic. Cooking this seed cake should be easier for you.

If you want to convert a recipe, like this one above, I suggest first making it as it is. See how it goes, find out how it tastes. Doing historical cookery is fascinating because sometimes tastes have changed and what might have been lovely then is barely palatable now, but very often I have found that old recipes produce wonderfully tasty results.  It’s worth trying the recipe out first as written. I have, however, halved the quantities in this recipe. Even I couldn’t eat that much cake!  Here’s my ingredient list:

The Recipe Converted

  • 250g plain flour
  • 250g butter (unsalted)
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 1/2 a nutmeg grated
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon

Pre-warm the oven to 160oc

First weigh out the ingredients.

Elizabeth, speaking from the eighteenth century has some advice, after reading this I kept hearing her voice:

“When you make any Kind of Cakes, be sure that you get your Things ready before you begin, then beat your Eggs well, and don’t leave them ’till you have finished the Cakes, or else they will not go back again, and your Cakes will not be light.”

Ok Elizabeth!

Separate the eggs.   Put the egg whites into a bowl of a stand mixer, whisk until forming soft peaks, set aside.  In the same bowl whisk the egg yolks until light and frothy. Set aside.  Then add the butter to bowl, beat the butter until light of colour, then add the caster sugar and beat until almost white. Mixing slowly add the flour and the egg yolks.  Beat until well mixed.  Add a tablespoon or so of beaten egg white into the mix to loosen it.  Now fold the rest of the egg white into the mixture until no white streaks are visible. Butter a loaf or cake tin and transfer the mixture into it.  Don’t worry about flattening the mixture, doing so will remove the air that you have beaten in to it.  The mixture will settle down.

Put the cake tin into the oven. I do always line the tin with baking paper, especially when testing a new recipe, it was lucky I did with this one.  Leave it to bake for at least two hours.

Of course Elizabeth has something to say about that too:

“Bake all Kinds of Cake in a good oven, follow the Directions of your Receipt, (although) the Management and the Oven must be left to the maker’s care.”

So do make sure your oven is on the right setting, or Elisabeth won’t like it!

Check that the cake is done by using a metal skewer inserted into the middle of it, it should come out clean with no sticky residue.  Leave the cake to cool before taking it from the tin.

When it was cooled down I tried the cake with a cup of tea.  Maybe less caraway next time.  That’s purely personal though.

Cooking with caraway seeds was an education.  It’s an acquired taste but a slice of this seed cake does go really well with a good cup of tea. Please do let me know how you get on with the recipe.

I will test the cake on the volunteers.  Every volunteer day they get to taste my latest creation.  Lucky them. They are very honest too, if I’ve used too much caraway they will tell me.

Working in a mini-building site was an experience.  Outside the kitchen window holes were being dug and lots of plumber like activity was taking place.  I wondered what sort of activities were happening around Mrs Raffald when she was cooking.  My mind turned, as it often does, to the cook that would have stood in my place, here at the Regency Town House, in this very kitchen.  And who might have made this very seed cake here in the 1830s.  It’s such a wonderful feeling, I sometimes have to pinch myself.

Recipe and mixing bowl